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Jessica Espey, Jenna Slotin, Alice Macdonald 

Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data, Project Everyone


Three organisations – the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, Project Everyone and Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data – have come together to accelerate progress in up-to-date data on the SDGs in an accessible and engaging way.


Here, Jessica Espey, Alice Macdonald and Jenna Slotin share their insight on the current challenges facing data and development.

Data Collection Has Become Far More difficult

With current travel containment measures, the ability for countries to conduct censuses, surveys and various traditional forms of data collection is incredibly difficult. Consequently, there's a high probability that for 2020, we'll be missing quite a lot of core statistical information. There are also some very practical problems relating to the ways of working; a number of partners we work with in Africa have had connectivity challenges and the opportunity to collaborate has slowed. This is frustrating as there’s a real eagerness and opportunity to foster multi-stakeholder partnerships between government and non-governmental actors to help fill data gaps, but it can be hard to facilitate right now.


There is an increasing recognition of the need for timely data because we're in a fast-moving pandemic that has secondary and tertiary effects on the economy and wellbeing. Many of our partners are struggling to ensure that they have the information they need to make rapid decisions. When you’re looking at the Covid-19 response, a huge number of countries don't have timely disease and epidemiological modelling or disease / contact tracing, so they have no idea how it is spreading, how the population is moving or how transport networks are behaving.


Even Advanced Countries Have Astonishing Gaps

More broadly, even the most advanced countries have astonishing gaps in data – we don't have comparable city level data across the entire United States on maternal mortality, for example. There is no standardised measure, it's all modelled estimates. Because the federal government won't stipulate a way of monitoring it, it is decentralised to states and city level governments and they use different methods.


Some don't report it at all. We all know that there's a worryingly high rate in the United States, but how can we begin to even tackle the problem when we don't have comparable data?


Furthermore, if you're relying on data that is updated every five years in a survey, or 10 years in a census, and you're planning as a government your allocation of resources, a short while after it is conducted the census is going to give an outdated picture that no longer matches your population’s needs. There are ways to use new methods and technologies to take measures between censuses while using the census as a robust foundation, however, such as the work of partners in the POPGRID consortium.


Change Is Happening Ever More Swiftly

Our societies are becoming increasingly fast paced and change happens even more swiftly. People migrate constantly and the economy is evolving over time at a much faster rate – these changes need to be measured and accounted for at the rate that they're occurring, otherwise you can't plan for where services are needed. Where do we need more teachers in the schools? Where is social assistance going to be important? A mismatch or untimely data makes that a very difficult task.


On Nearly Every SDG There Are Critical Issues

Across nearly every single dimension of the SDGs there are critical issues that are not entirely monitored. Urbanisation is one of the defining trends of our time and we need to figure out how to live sustainably in high-density environments, but nearly all of the different indicators under SDG 11 (Sustainable Cities) are still under development. We're still not properly, systematically recording this data across cities worldwide, and the different methods of data we do have is often not comparable. The urban goals are a huge priority, be it to do with infrastructure, roads, public transit – and we need standardised methods to do this.


Gender Data Is Grossly Inadequate

While it’s been a hot political topic for the past 50 years, gender is still one of the areas where we have grossly inadequate data and reporting. We don't have consistent methods for monitoring time poverty, unpaid care, and crucial issues such as domestic violence and child marriage. Furthermore, many of the social SDG indicators cannot be broken down by gender – male, female, transgender and LGBTQI – in spite of countries’ explicit commitment to ‘leave no one behind,’ as noted in Agenda 2030.


Monitoring educational outcomes and learning is also exceptionally challenging. We've done a lot to improve the quality of enrolment and attendance data, but unfortunately, we don't have a very good sense of what children are learning and how effectively, which is a huge area of concern if we're trying to not just get children into school, but actually generate high quality graduates.


Finally, for sustainable production and consumption we need much better information on the whole breadth of our supply chains, so we have a sense of not just whether a country is recycling sustainably, but how sustainable is the entire production cycle and whether we can change consumption behaviours.


A Fundamental Step For Many Is Still Internet Connection

The fundamental building block of building modern data systems is making sure that everyone is digitally connected. In developing countries, the first step we need to take is ensuring people are connected to telecommunications systems and the internet. Basic infrastructural investment is therefore hugely important, as once that’s completed you can start think about digital government systems where data can be joined up to better understand people’s needs and deliver services more effectively, while safeguarding their personal information.


Satellite Data Is Increasingly Promising

One of the things that is the most promising and requires the least infrastructural investment is the better use of satellite data. Since the ‘70s there’s been free access to US Landsat program, but it wasn't widely used by all governments. In the last decade, it’s become much more common place to have GIS training across governments to help spatially visualise or map most projects and investments. We've also seen a huge flurry of satellite providers giving high resolution, open access data. This fairly simple act of integrated geo-referenced planning has the potential to help developing countries who may not have access to high quality modern technology, or the capital to invest in infrastructure.


Also crucial is data communications. If we’re not communicating this data in a way that is understandable, clear and can create cut-through, it has less of an impact. If it is presented in a compelling way, it inevitably helps to translate into policy decisions. One of the challenges we often come up against is, how do you turn what can be quite complicated data into actionable information? Data comes to life when it is paired with a story. The underrepresentation of women in politics was illustrated in a fresh, news-agenda focused lens recently, for example, by the fact that female-led countries fared better during Covid-19.


Many Countries Have Made Innovative Progress

There are a number of countries that have made innovative and considerable progress by investing in data to help advance the Sustainable Development Goals. Colombia has placed a strong emphasis on a data-based approach by using more geospatial information to aid their efforts. Likewise, the Philippines has placed a strong emphasis on data and the tracking of progress, aided by their consolidated statistical system under the leadership of the Philippines Statistical Authority. The UK is another great example of a country taking a data-based approach to drive SDG progress and experimenting with new methods and data partnership through their data lab, jointly run by DFID and the Office of National statistics.


Ghana deserves special mention because they have demonstrated strategic and political support behind their willingness to adopt new methods and approaches across government departments. In the last five years their SDG coordination structures have strengthened their national statistical systems by working with the whole data ecosystem in the country, improving the way that they gather information so that it can be used for better tracking. They’re a leading example of working with the private sector and the use of mobile data. Together with Vodafone Ghana, Flowminder and some other partners, they've been at the forefront of working with mobile data to better understand human mobility and experimenting with new measures that can provide additional information to inform policy decisions.


There’s A Lack Of Big Global Actors

Arguably one of the limitations of the SDGs is that it was developed by governments, which means that it's a nationally oriented policy framework, not focused on reaching outside to the private sector or third-party actors. To date, there's been a lack of systematic engagement with the big global economic actors – huge pension funds, financial houses, major investment corporations, infrastructure developers.


If we’re really going to make some headway and be serious about decarbonising our world and moving to a more sustainable economy, we need to find ways to forcibly incentivise behaviour change.


The EU Climate Taxonomy coming into action at the end of next year is hugely exciting. Even though it primarily covers climate and the environment – and while the SDGs are much broader – it is a set of strong guidance on different ways to structure investments in order to ensure a positive and green impact.


So, not just thinking about whether something emits carbon and CO2, like fossil fuels, but how is the infrastructure of the thing you’re investing impacting land use? How does it affect food systems and other knock-on issues? It has the potential to direct huge flows of resourcing, and broadly encourage commitments to these issues, helping other countries to follow suit. The power of the European Union in doing this is comparable to introducing GDPR, which instigated a worldwide conversation on data regulation. When this comes into play, it could impact the entire financial sector and help bring them on board with the sustainable development agenda.

The co-authors are Jessica Espey, Senior Advisor to Sustainable Development Solutions Network & Director of TReNDS, Jenna Slotin, Senior Director of Policy for Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data and Alice Macdonald, Policy and Campaigns Director of Project Everyone.


The working group’s event, A Global Goals Day Of Factivism on September 25th, will mark the 5th anniversary of the agreement of the SDGs

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